German Cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, ASC, was among the last people to work with Chadwick Boseman when he shot Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for Director George C. Wolfe.
Recently, Schliessler opened up to Below the Line about working with Wolfe and hi talented leads, Viola Davis and Boseman. Based on the August Wilson play, the film depicts the tension of a single recording session and the emotions that play out in the Chicago basement rehearsal space. Davis stars as Ma Rainey while Boseman plays Levee, a coronet player hoping to break out and make it on his own.
Schliessler spoke to us about the challenges of shooting the basement scene and capturing the emotions on camera. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom isn’t the first time he’s captured such legends on camera, as he previously handled the same duties for Director Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls, which counts Beyoncé among its cast, and he also frequently works with Peter Berg.
Below the Line: What was it about Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom that drew you to work on the project?
Tobias Schliessler: I loved the script. August Wilson’s play was pretty amazing. I really liked the movie, Fences, that Denzel had directed. When this came up, I was very excited to have the chance to be part of this movie. It got forwarded to me by my agent, Lara Sackett. I read the script, and it was kind of an amazing opportunity to be part of it.
BTL: Can you talk about working with George C. Wolfe?
Schliessler: He’s obviously an incredibly talented director — we had a great working relationship together. I had very little prep time on this movie. I only had 13 days but I kind of saw things very similar—not easy but he had a clear idea of how he wanted to make the movie look, which makes it easier for me. He had references of the color tones. When I first started prep, he referenced a print of the painting, which was from 1906 of Chicago, that Production Designer Mark Ricker had found. We used those tones of the painting to give me an idea of how he wanted to make the movie look. It was supposed to feel really hot from the summer heat in Chicago and that canceled the first idea.
He had a very clear idea about the blocking and how he wanted to block, especially in the basement, which was tricky. I could feel the tug of war when I first read it. I was like, “How are we going to make this condition interesting and thematic when it’s four people in a 20×20 basement?” He explained it to me like he wanted to have it feel like it’s a boxing game except there’s no gloves. It’s bigger than their world, and they’ll each have a corner in the basement. We even put holes in there to kind of make it look like a boxing ring. That was a good idea of how we were going to shoot this movie.
BTL: What was the decision process that went into choosing your camera and lenses?
Schliessler: I wanted to use a large format full-frame camera, and we wanted to shoot in 4K. We actually shot in 6K. I used the Sony Venice camera that I really like and has a great latitude from the highlights. It has a great range, and I like how it captures skin tones. We used the large format lenses—they are supreme lenses. I like using large format, because the shadows just aren’t as important for shooting inside that basement room to make the background fall off of it and really focus on the actors. What I also like about using this wider lens is they don’t distort as much as regular Super 35 light lenses. That was important to us so that the audience doesn’t get distracted by anything in terms of lens distortion or the lenses don’t breathe.
BTL: Were there any scenes or sequences that you found to be the most challenging?
Schliessler: The most challenging scenes were definitely being in the basement with four actors in one room. George wanted to shoot those in continuous action and not break down any of these longer monologues. Some of the scenes were six-minute continuous takes and because the acting is so emotional, but the challenge would definitely be in the rehearsal room shooting the emotional scene in one continuous take with multiple cameras.
BTL: The film features two powerhouse leads in Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman. Can you talk about working with them?
Schliessler: They are amazing, talented actors, and it was just such a pleasure to watch happen in front of my camera. They’re both so focused that there were times where we all cried behind the monitor because it was so emotional. They’re just as good as it gets, and they brought it to life with a performance like that. You just capture them, and you try to not distract anything with lighting. That was one of the things that we really wanted to do—keep the screen to the actors and not distract with anything lighting-wise, camera-wise, or lens-wise. It was all about the performance. Thinking back, knowing what Chadwick went through at the time, which no one knew, is heartbreaking. Seeing him under those circumstances, performing at those levels is incredible.
BTL: What will you miss the most about a talent like Chadwick?
Schliessler: He passed away way too young. He had such a future ahead of him. Having met him, it’s an inspiration for the rest of my life. That’s what I take from him, and I don’t know how to explain how sad it is not to have him with us anymore.
BTL: Is there a genre of films that you want to work on but haven’t had the opportunity yet?
Schliessler: I just love good drama and good stories and hope I get to do more of those. I don’t have a specific genre. I’ve never done a Western before — I’d love to do that. There’s certain movies I haven’t done. In general, I’m just looking for great stories and working with talented directors and actors. It’s more to me about the story that I’m going to tell emotional stories that hopefully make an impact on life and make a change.
All photos courtesy Netflix.